Severn News

Sixth Graders Explore Afghanistan with The Breadwinner Project

At the end of last quarter, our 6th-grade classrooms buzzed with energy as students prepared for an interactive museum bringing together weeks of hard work. Based on Deborah Ellis’s award-winning young adult novel The Breadwinner, this project gives our students a broader view of the world. It helps them make connections from one class to another, one person to another and one culture to another.

What is The Breadwinner Project?

The Breadwinner Project is a research-based unit that spans sixth-grade English, geography, math, art and science. The novel on which the project is based tells the story of an Afghani girl growing up during the early days of the Taliban regime. Our sixth-grade teaching team uses characters, themes and settings from the book to build lessons that weave into each other at different times. Our students work on all of this concurrently, pulling from what they learn in one class to build upon another. The project culminates with "The Breadwinner Museum" where students share and evaluate each other’s work.

Geography: Making Connections a World Apart

Sixth graders complete two research assignments to explore the setting of The Breadwinner using academic databases, Google Earth and non-fiction books. Working with geography teacher Ms. Cathy Carper and assistant librarian Ms. Whitney Etchison, students first research to compare the main character’s life to their own. Then they complete a more comprehensive research chart on Afghanistan including information about history, religion, culture and customs, government, food and economics. They also choose an Afghani artifact for focused research and tie that to their more general study about the country.
“As global citizens, what can we gain by studying war-torn Afghanistan? By acknowledging our differences, we learn to develop an appreciation of what we have in common.” — Ms. Carper

English: Creativity and Flow

English teacher Ms. Laura Drossner uses The Breadwinner to help students master the differences between expository and narrative writing. For the narrative writing assignment students choose from three possible formats:
  • Write a sequel to The Breadwinner
  • Write a narrative that could possibly happen in Afghanistan but use fictional characters
  • Write a fictional interview using characters from the book
Ms. Drossner selects a number of these pieces for other students to act out at "The Breadwinner Museum." Transforming the stories into skits provides another way for students to connect with the material and get know the writing styles and ideas of their classmates.

For the expository assignment, sixth graders use the artifact they selected in geography as the basis for their writing. They write a paragraph that not only includes accurate research and citations but also flows and maintains interest for the reader.
“We focus on how to make your writing flow from broad to specific. The students learn how to make every sentence lead to the next and use good transitions. I'm helping them develop a style rather than just listing information.” — Ms. Drossner
Picture of a scarf with a paragraph of student writing.
Example of an artifact (burka) along with the completed expository paragraph.

Science: Research Presented with Style

As our students work on projects in geography and English, they dive into research about deforestation and other Afghan environmental issues in science class. Working in groups they plan and film short videos to present their findings. Science teacher Ms. Eva Farina-Henry gives the class full creative license in making the videos as long as they convey their research with accuracy and in a way that is captivating for the viewer to watch.
Picture of a group of middle school students working with their iPads.
Filming videos with iPads.

Math: Proportional Reasoning and Building to Scale

Working with math teacher Ms. Andi Whiteford students create a diorama of the main character's room to scale. In the book, the writer describes her room as being “ten by twelve steps.” The author also describes the furniture and how it is placed in the room. Based on these descriptions, students create a technical drawing of the room on graph paper and use that to construct a proportional model using cardboard and clay. 
“Measuring to scale is a new skill for 6th graders. The Breadwinner Project is the first time they have to do this in math class, but when we tackle this skill later this year, they will have this concrete activity to connect it to.” — Ms. Whiteford
Picture of a cardboard diorama of a room.
Students make every wall and piece of furniture by hand and to scale.

Art: Gratitude and Graffiti

If students can articulate what they are thankful for in their own lives, they can better understand what it might be like to live without some of those things. Art teacher Ms. Yehee Shin assigns gratitude accordion books to help her classes make connections to the characters while developing bookmaking and illustration skills. On the day of "The Breadwinner Museum," she also works with students to create a collaborative graffiti wall using images and terms from the book.
Middle school gratitude accordion journal.
A sample gratitude accordion book.

Bringing It All Together

For the final day of the unit, our sixth-grade teaching team works with Ms. Etchison and library associate Ms. Diana Michel to transform the Teel Campus library into "The Breadwinner Museum." Students act out Breadwinner-inspired narrative skits for a lively audience in the Bremer Room. They critique writing samples and dioramas on display, eagerly watch their peers’ videos and work together to create a piece of art to describe Afghanistan with a visual design. It is an immersive and interactive experience that engages our students from every angle.
Severn School student works in the library.
Each student filled out a reflection form to comment on their classmates’ work.
Authentic learning is integral to our Middle School curriculum. Through projects like this, students understand larger themes that span disciplines and relate to the world outside Severn. They learn that culture and identity are a combination of many elements — from history, climate, and economics to personal perspectives and relationships. They learn to empathize, collaborate and how to dive deeply into a topic using academic research and thoughtful analysis.

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